The billionaire cofounders of Vista Equity Partners, one of America’s pre-eminent private equity firms, keep making news in San Francisco’s courts, and not in a positive way.
Just months after it was revealed that Robert F. Smith was embroiled in an alleged $2 billion tax fraud of Houston billionaire Robert Brockman, his onetime heir apparent, Brian N. Sheth, is connected to a legal battle involving Twitter posts that cast Sheth in a negative light.
According to a motion filed in federal court in San Francisco, there is a fight brewing between Twitter and a legal entity over an anonymous account posting pictures of women on private jets and at lavish parties, and making a connection with Sheth, the recently departed co-founder of Vista. It’s yielded a legal back and forth between Twitter and an entity seeking to remove the posts and reveal the identity of the anonymous account.
The saga began in October, when a Twitter account called @CallMeMoneyBags was created and began to post a series of photos of women alongside commentary such as “Brian Sheth is the King of Private Equity,” and “Life is good when you are Brian Sheth.” The Twitter account posted six pictures implying Sheth led a partying lifestyle, including with women outside his marriage.
One photo appears to show a woman on Sheth’s private Bombardier jet, and another, at his Beverly Hills mansion. Some of the photos, like the ones involving the jet, appear to have been removed, but most of the tweets remain. The remaining tweets include no images of Sheth or his jet or home. (Through a spokesperson Sheth declined to comment on the photos or the claims made in the MoneyBags tweets.)
On December 2, an entity called Bayside Advisory LLC subpoenaed Twitter under a copyright law provision, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, in an effort to identify the person behind the @CallMeMoneyBags account. Bayside argued it “exclusively owns the copyrights to certain photographs” and that @CallMeMoneyBags posted the pictures “without Bayside’s permission toward the end of October 2020.”
Bayside also asked Twitter to remove the photos in a take down notice. However, Twitter rejected the notice, asking Bayside to log a complaint instead, which it then mostly rejected on First Amendment grounds. (Twitter does appear to have taken some photos down, including one involving a private jet purportedly owned by Sheth). The outcome, however, didn’t sit well with Bayside, which then issued subpoenas to Twitter and the @CallMeMoneyBags account, and pressed its case to remove the photos and reveal the identity of MoneyBags.
Upon receiving the subpoena, Twitter met with Bayside’s lawyers, who it says in court filings refused to disclose their connection to Sheth. In counterclaims, Bayside says it acquired copyright to the images, entitling them to file the claims. Bayside characterizes itself as the independent owner of the images and says he pictures were not taken or owned by Sheth.
Twitter, however, isn’t convinced and asked for more information about Bayside’s copyright claim and, as of late January, took the position that removing the account’s posts or unmasking the accountholder would violate the First Amendment.
In a Jan. 23 motion, Twitter’s lawyers at Perkins Coie asked that a San Francisco court quash the subpoena against the @CallMeMoneyBags account.
“Twitter’s counsel has attempted to learn the connection between Bayside and Sheth or the images at issue but has been unsuccessful… Bayside does not appear to be registered to conduct business in California, and public searches of Bayside reveal only an Ohio real estate holdings company with no apparent connection to Sheth and no specialization in creating or acquiring copyrights of candid photographs,” said Twitter in its motion.
“Twitter is concerned that the Subpoena is an attempt to use copyright law to suppress public criticism or rumors of extramarital affairs,” its lawyers added. “The photographs at issue are candid snapshots of women in private planes or at parties. It appears the anonymous Twitter user here posted those candid photographs for the purpose of criticizing or satirizing Sheth. As a result, the user’s posting of the photographs appears to be a transformative fair use rather than infringement.”
The subpoena “did not appear to relate strictly to copyright, and that it instead appeared to Twitter that Sheth was in some way connected to the subpoena efforts, in an attempt to suppress criticism of Sheth’s lifestyle,” Twitter further argues.“Indeed, it appears that Bayside could not maintain a prima facie claim of copyright infringement because the speech at issue here constitutes fair use. It presents the copyrighted photographs not for any commercial purpose, but exclusively for parodical criticism and commentary.”
The @CallMeMoneyBags account has between 350 and 400 followers and primarily tweets about social issues in the private equity space. It aimed criticisms not just at Sheth and Vista broadly, but also at Apollo Global cofounder Leon Black for his ties to Jeffrey Epstein, which he has said he regrets. The account also posted regarding a law firm’s creation of a #MeToo practice targeting private equity clients, and one that criticized “a party allegedly hosted by a private equity firm that did not observe social distancing practices.”
Bayside isn’t backing down. It fired back on February 4, pressing its contention that Twitter’s First Amendment objection has no application because it owns the copyright to the photos in question. It argues that it has complied with the legal reasoning to prove copyright infringement, making First Amendment issues moot. “MoneyBags has engaged in copyright infringement, an activity not protected by the First Amendment,” conclude Bayside’s lawyers at Glaser, Weil, Fink, Howard, Avchen & Shapiro.
Bayside continues to urge the court to hold the social media giant in contempt if it keeps the posts active and does not identify MoneyBags. The court battle continues. When reached by Forbes, a representative for Sheth declined to comment.
It’s been a wild and damaging twelve months for Vista and its cofounders Sheth and Smith, who have since gone their separate ways after splitting in November. In fact, the October creation of @CallMeMoneyBags coincided with the revelation of one of the biggest scandals in Wall Street history.
On October 15, the private equity world was rocked when the Justice Department described Smith as a central figure in a $2 billion tax evasion suit it brought against automotive billionaire Robert Brockman, the seed investor in Vista. The suit cast a new light on Vista, considered one of the best-performing buyout firms in the world, and on Smith, who gained national acclaim for paying off the student loans of Morehouse College graduates in 2019.
In fact, Smith was entangled at the time in a massive tax fraud case. He admitted that he committed tax fraud in a statement of facts in the DOJ’s settlement with him, and is now a cooperating witness against Brockman. In addition to cooperating, Smith agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in fines and abandoned tax claims as part of his non-prosecution agreement with the government. Sheth was not implicated in any wrongdoing. (See Forbes’ investigation into Brockman, Smith and their alleged tax fraud)
Last Thanksgiving, another wrench was tossed into the works for Vista when Sheth, once the heir apparent to Smith, left the firm. The departure came just weeks after the Justice Department made the tax case against Smith public. In late November, Sheth told Forbes he’d finished negotiating his exit after fighting for his life in a Texas hospital after contracting Covid-19.
With a lucrative exit package, Sheth said he wanted to look forward and not dwell on the issues that corresponded with his exit from Vista. He noted that he was going to use his newfound free time to redouble his efforts to protect wildlife and the environment, and to spend more time with his family after a grueling two-decade run at Vista.